The Twentieth Century: Iran

Due to their delegate being entertaining in committee, agreeing to speak in favour of an amendment I introduced, and giving a great plenary speech.

Iran, just like Russia and China, stumbled into the 20th century under an antiquated royal system, under the Qajar Dynasty, and just like in the other two countries, a Revolution occurred very quickly into the new century. A merchant protest escalated when the police violated the sanctity of a Mosque to arrest the protesters, and vast crowds assembled and went to the British Embassy, which agreed to give them shelter. This mass of people articulated a demand for a Parliament (Majles) and a constitution. The Shah, Mozaffar  ad-Din Qajar, was old and exhausted, and gave in. The first Parliamentary elections took place in 1906, and the first Parliament immediately transformed itself into a Constitutional Assembly. The Constitution was duly produced and signed on December 31st, 1906; it included the important provision that the crown was given to the Shah by the volition of the people. The tide of reform was disruped, however, by the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. This agreement divided Iran into Russian and British Spheres of Influence, as both wished to acquire the oil resources which Iran possessed. The two foreign powers viewed the Shah as better to work with towards this goal, and strengthened by the foreign support, the Shah cracked down again, suppressing the Parliament. The Constitutionalist formed the Gilan guerrilla movement and took to the hills. The Russian Revolution caused Russian forces in Iran to withdraw; unable and unwilling to take the formerly Russian section, Britain stayed within its own zone. The instability resulting from this and the fundamental decay of the Qajar Dynasty combined to produce Reza Khan. Khan was a cavalry officer who in 1921 staged a coup and made himself Prime Minister; over the next few years, he put down the rebellions against his rule, solidified his power base and eventually made himself Shah in 1925.

As king, Reza Khan was a sort of second-rate Ataturk; he pursued modernity and secularity, but was less capable and less successful. His tenure was marked by characteristics typical of dictatorships everywhere in the interwar period. He expanded public services, established firm law and order, and and introduced symbols of modernity such radios and cinemas. He was also extremely corrupt and authoritarian. There were regular revolts against his rule, but his dictatorship was only ended in 1941 when Britain and the USSR launched a joint invasion of Iran. Khan was neutral, but leaned towards the Axis; the Allies were afraid Iran would join the enemy, wished to secure Iranian oil, and open a supply line from British India to the embattled Caucasus. Iran’s independence was guaranteed at the 1943 Tehran conference, but the Red Army encouraged a variety of Communist and Nationalist uprising as they withdrew.

The spheres agreed to in the Anglo-Russian Convention.

The spheres agreed to in the Anglo-Russian Convention.

Reza Khan.

Reza Khan.

In the first few years after the end of the Second World War, it looked like Iran was to become a constitutional monarchy. The Parliamentary governments were unstable, but the system itself seemed to work. Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (the man often known in the West simply as “The Shah”) stayed largely out of politics, and allowed the Prime Ministers to run the country. This all changed in 1951, when the Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadeq, received Parliamentary approval to nationalise the oil industry, which jeopardised western profits. The CIA and MI6 mounted a coup, and deposed Mossadeq, and brought the Shah to greater control. The Shah, as is typical of dictators, tried to modernise the country while also repressing his people and massively enlarging the military. Iran aligned itself with the West and especially the United States, from which it received massive financial and military aid. Iran joined CENTO in 1955, and by 1979 was the strongest military power in the Middle East, with vast stores of expensively bought US weaponry. The reforming efforts came to be known as the White Revolution. Measures taken included substantial land reform, extension of the vote to women, increasing public literacy and health, reduction of corruption, and social security. This did not work as intended, and the groups whose loyalty was most sought, the peasants and the urban working classes, both became apathetic at best towards the Shah. Any who opposed the White Revolution or indeed the Shah in any way were dealt with by the SAVAK, the secret police. The Shah was making himself increasingly unpopular with the people; he could not last.

Street protests first began to erupt in 1978 against the Shah, and escalated violently over the course of the year to such a point that the Shah was forced to flee the country. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran from exile in France on February 1st, 1979, and on February 11th, the Iranian military declared its intention not to take further action against the revolution. The Shah was finished, but it was unclear what direction the new government was to take. Khomeini  advanced a solution, and a referendum making Iran an Islamic Republic was passed on April 1st, 1979. The centre of Khomeini’s ideas was the principle of Guardianship of the Jurist, whereby senior clerics were to rule in the name of the people. The new constitution, passed in December 1979, made Khomeini the first Supreme Leader, and set a dual system of theocratic and democratic institutions. The executive was composed of an appointed Supreme Leader and an elected President, while the elected Parliament’s decisions were subject to an appointed Guardian Council. The new Iran faced a series of crises; multiple nationalist secessionist movements emerged around the national periphery, while Iraq invaded in 1980, seeking to capitalise on the confusion to seize valuable oil-rich land. The Iran-Iraq was an extremely dirty business; the Iranian leadership did not know how to effectively fight a war, but Iraq’s forces were outnumbered; Iran fell back on First World War-style human wave attacks, and Iraq made plentiful use of chemical weapons. After the end of the war in 1988 with a UN-brokered truce, Khomeini presided over a purge of the Communist Party and other political prisoners before dying in 1989. Before he went, he appointed Ali Khameini as the new Supreme Leader. Khameini was far more moderate than his predecessor, and this combined with the election of reformist President Khatami in 1997 indicated a moderate, reforming direction to Iran’s move into the 21st century.

The Shah.

The Shah.

Khomeini returning to Iran.

Khomeini returning to Iran.

An Iranian soldier in the War with Iraq.

An Iranian soldier in the War with Iraq.

Khameini.

Khameini.

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